One of the meat traders who falsely labeled beef products that actually contained horsemeat was found guilty — but he deceived, not poisoned, the consumers who ate those products.

The hammer has dropped in the ongoing prosecution of participants in the European horsemeat labeling scam first uncovered two years ago.

A Dutch court has convicted a meat wholesaler named Willy Selten of selling hundreds of tons of horsemeat labeled as beef.

“As the boss of two companies, he [Selten] was guilty of forging invoices, labels and written declarations and using these forged documents to trade meat,” the court in the Dutch city of Den Bosch said in its ruling. Through his actions, Selten “contributed to a negative image for the Dutch meat industry and damaged the sector’s interests,” the court stated.

According to trial documents released by the prosecutors, authorities said they found 33 examples of false accounts, including at least one statement where meat was processed as “100 percent beef,” when in fact it contained beef and horsemeat.

Selten, who also owns a meat plant, was “a master of deception,” the prosecution said.

“He deceived his staff, his supervisors and consumers, whose confidence has been harmed,” prosecutor Ingeborg Koopmans told the three-judge panel, according to the Deutsche Welle news website. “The reputation of the Dutch meat industry has been damaged.”

Selten, whose company went bankrupt after the scandal, insisted on his innocence.

“We have made mistakes in our bookkeeping,” he testified, mistakes due to “automatism.”

Huh? Apparently, something got lost in translation, but even so, Selten’s defense was about as plausible as the plot line for Mall Cop 2.

“I am not the big horsemeat swindler they’re all looking for,” he told reporters. “I was careless with my administration, but not intentionally.”

Nice try, Willy.

In an earlier interview with Dutch news agency Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau, Selten claimed that beef cuts and horsemeat were stored in the freezer with the same lot number. “I forgot to give them different numbers, and it’s wrong what happened,” he told ANP. “Of course we should have exercised better control.”

Yeah, and Dick Nixon should have exercised greater honesty.

Of course, as TIME magazine pointed out in tis coverage, “Consumption of horsemeat is rare [no pun intended] in the United States. But there are enough horseeaters (sic) in Europe to sustain slaughterhouses there, even including in Britain, where very few people eat horse. Of course, even people who are OK with eating horse aren’t OK with buying what they think is beef, only to find out later that it’s horsemeat.

Troubling tactics

TIME headlined its coverage as, “Justice handed down,” and there is truth in that characterization — as opposed to the lack of the same in Selten’s vapid testimony. When consumers purchase a food product, the labeling, the ingredient statement, must be truthful, if only as a matter of integrity and fairness.

That is why the most troubling aspect of the media’s coverage of this story is the ongoing narrative calling it a “massive scandal,” the “frightening finding” of horsemeat in various food products, as if the Euro cops had walked in on guys shoveling arsenic into the meat grinders at plants like Selden’s.

Keep in mind that the deception that occurred in several countries went on for months and in some cases years before anyone found out. Consumers who bought the mislabeled products at some of Europe’s biggest supermarket chains were happily eating their “meat-flavored” lasagna and “beefy” ravioli without a single complaint — nor a single outbreak — prior to the discovery of the illegal labeling scam.

Horsemeat isn’t poisonous, or even non-nutritious. It’s very similar to beef in terms of texture and flavor, which is why nobody realized the deception right away. A year ago, Russia announced a multi-million dollar government investment in horsemeat production, apparently to satisfy demand among various ethnic groups.

More importantly, as European Health Commissioner Tonio Borg said in the statement released following the commission’s investigation, “[The] findings have confirmed that this is a matter of food fraud and not of food safety.”

All along, various animal activists have used the controversies over horsemeat to push their larger agenda. In the United States, they’ve tried to sell the idea that slaughtering a horse is somehow different, somehow inhumane, compared with the same activity involving cattle or pigs.

And in Europe, the tactic has been to portray horsemeat itself as deadly and dangerous.

Like the European meat labels, neither supposition is accurate.

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator